A Sermon for the First Sunday after the Octave of Epiphany
January 14, 2024 at Holy Communion
Proverbs 1:1–9, Romans 12:1–5, Luke 2:41–52
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
This week at the Bible study, as we were discussing our reading from Proverbs, we had a chuckle about some of the material that comes later in the book. After a poetic introduction that has more structure, most of the book is a series of aphorisms, short saying illustrating some aspect of practical wisdom. Normally I wouldn’t quote from such a loose paraphrase, but the Casual English Version of the Bible really understands the spirit of the Proverbs, I think. Here are some highlights:
“It’s better to eat veggies in a house filled with love
Than to eat steak served by someone who hates your guts.” (15:17)
“Don’t retaliate and say, ‘I’m going to even the score.’
Wait for the LORD. He packs a bigger punch.” (20:22)
“A gold ring in a pig’s nose
Is a gorgeous woman with no sense.” (11:22)
“Even a fool looks smart when his mouth is shut.
If he doesn’t say anything, he could actually look intelligent.” (17:28)
And forgive the language in this one, but its worth including:
“A horse needs a whip and donkey needs a bridle,
But a jackass needs a kick in the butt.” (26:3)
Many Christian traditions, Protestants in particular, have singled out the Book of Proverbs as an important part of your daily scripture diet. Alongside daily selections from the Psalms, which all Christian traditions encourage, you can find reading plans which will give you your daily dose of proverbial wisdom to mull over throughout your day. The question is, “Why?”
Most of the proverbs are intuitively true. They are not riddles; they’re observations. For example, when you hear Proverbs 10:23—“Bad people enjoy doing bad things. Smart people enjoy doing smart things”—all we can really say is, “Well, that seems right!” But if wisdom were really as easy as that, you would think that more people would be wise.
People are not foolish because wisdom is inaccessible or difficult. The Bible consistently presents wisdom as something that can certainly be acquired if only we bother to listen to it (Proverbs 1:20–23), or look for it (Proverbs 2:4–8), or ask for it (James 1:5). People are foolish because they do not allow wisdom to be formed in them. They do not look for wisdom, they do not seek, they do not ask.
So to spend time reflecting on wise sayings is not about learning wisdom entails, but about seeking the presence of Wisdom daily, so that Wisdom can enter and live with us. This is what St Paul means when he says in today’s Epistle that we should be “be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2). This is one of St Paul’s favourite sermon topics: he uses almost exactly the same language in Ephesians 4 (v 23), and refers to the same idea in almost every one of his letters.
Transformation of our minds by wisdom dovetails well with Paul’s bigger-picture understanding of what it means to be a Christian. To be a Christian is to have Christ living in you, to be united to him in death to sin and life to righteousness (Romans 6:11), until we can say with St Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). This life is grown in us by prayer, by participation in the life of Christ’s body the church, and by meditation on God’s revealed wisdom in the Bible.
In this Epiphany Season, a season of manifestation, this is what is shown to us in our Gospel reading. The child Jesus, now on the cusp of adulthood, gives his parents the slip and is found some time later in the Temple, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:46–47). We already know from our Christmas readings that Jesus is the Son and Word coming forth from God the Father; now he is revealed as the Wisdom of God.
Jesus is the one who perfectly reveals what is means for a human being to receive God’s wisdom. He seeks out the places where wisdom is taught. He listens attentively. He asks questions. And when he speaks, he speaks only what is true, and right, and just. He is Wisdom incarnate.
We might think of the Incarnation, God coming into the world, as something that happens only in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in history. But there is a broader perspective, perhaps even more dominant in the New Testament. God comes into the world first as the historical person of Christ, but only so that he can gather to himself a body of believers who will continue Christ’s incarnate presence in the world as God’s Spirit animates them. We are the body of Christ—born, buried and raised with him in baptism, and lifted to the throne of heaven as we commune in his Spirit.
Therefore our call is, with Jesus, to become Wisdom incarnate. It should be an embarrassment, a failure to live up to our calling, if we find ourselves unwise while claiming to live close to Christ the Wisdom of God.
But of course God knows that we are embarrassed this way. We do find ourselves looking back on our choices and saying, “How in the world could I have thought that that was a good idea?” But there’s a simple solution to this. St James says, “If any of you lacks wisdom,”—and isn’t it comforting to have our lack of wisdom so frankly and unanxiously acknowledged?—”If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5). God will give us wisdom if we ask.
But we will never ask for wisdom, not really, so long as we insist on tolerating our own foolishness, as if it were normal, acceptable, or essential to our personality.
Perhaps we can connect with this idea better if we switch the word “foolishness” for “maturity.” We entitle ourselves to responding immaturely to the people around us. We allow ourselves to respond in anger. And when we are angry we think that it is acceptable not to listen to another person, not to try to understand where they are coming from. We avoid speaking to people with whom we are upset, instead of seeking them out to work through conflict. We allow ourselves to be paralyzed by anxieties which we know are not reasonable. We indulge in all sorts of self-destructive behaviours in the name of “comfort,” or “I deserve it,” or “I know I shouldn’t but it’s a habit now.” And all the while, we know deep down that we are behaving like upset toddlers, raging against a wisdom we know we will have to obey eventually.
Maturity, adult wisdom, does not tolerate these behaviours, but calms them, and turns to God as a source of strength to follow the way of discernment and careful judgement. Then Jesus Christ the Wisdom of God will become manifest in your heart and in your life.